Renowned North Carolina historian William S. Powell died last week. He was 95.
I came into my deep interest in history late in my undergraduate career, and I never took a class in the history department at the University of North Carolina. I did have an encounter with Dr. Powell, though.
I had just encountered Walker Colvert on microfilm for the first time. The 1900 federal census of Iredell County, North Carolina, listed the 74 year-old former slave as Virginia-born, and I wondered how I might ever determine where he might have come from. Afloat in naivete, I called Dr. Powell’s office and asked for an appointment. I wanted to understand migration patterns into North Carolina’s western Piedmont, and I thought “who better to ask?” Dr. Powell was welcoming and patient and betrayed no sign that he did not entertain curious English majors everyday. I came away from my brief visit with a strong suggested-reading list and even a personal tip that he knew of Colverts from the Staunton, Virginia, area. Three years later, I was enrolled in the graduate program in American History at Columbia University.